The afternoon of April tenth was clear and warm, a foretaste of summer. I dressed in slacks and one of the sport coats I’d bought during my year teaching at Denholm Consolidated. The.38 Police Special, fully loaded, went into my briefcase. I don’t remember being nervous; now that the time had come, I felt like a man encased in a cold envelope. I checked my watch: three-thirty.
My plan was to once more park in the Alpha Beta lot on Wycliff Avenue. I could be there by four-fifteen at the latest, even if the crosstown traffic was heavy. I’d scope out the alley. If it was empty, as I expected it would be at that hour, I’d check the hole behind the loose board. If Al’s notes were right about Lee stashing the Carcano in advance (even though he’d been wrong about the place), it would be there.
I’d go back to my car for awhile, watching the bus stop just in case Lee showed up early. When the 7:00 P.M. newcomers’ service started at the Mormon church, I’d stroll to the coffee shop that served breakfast all day and take a seat by the window. I would eat food I wasn’t hungry for, dawdling, making it last, watching the buses arrive and hoping that when Lee finally got off one, he’d be alone. I would also be hoping not to see George de Mohrenschildt’s boat of a car.
That, at least, was the plan.
I picked up my briefcase, glancing at my watch again as I did so. 3:33. The Chevy was gassed and ready to go. If I’d gone out and gotten into it then, as I’d planned to, my phone would have rung in an empty apartment. But I didn’t, because someone knocked at the door just as I reached for the knob.
I opened it and Marina Oswald was standing there.
For a moment I just gaped, unable to move or speak. Mostly it was her unexpected presence, but there was something else, as well. Until she was standing right in front of me, I hadn’t realized how much her wide blue eyes looked like Sadie’s.
Marina either ignored my surprised expression or didn’t notice it. She had problems of her own. “Please excuse, have you seen my hubka?” She bit her lips and shook her head a little. “Hubs-bun.” She attempted to smile, and she had those nicely refurbished teeth to smile with, but it still wasn’t very successful. “Sorry, sir, don’t speak good Eenglish. Am Byelorussia.”
I heard someone — I guess it was me — ask if she was talking about the man who lived upstairs.
“Yes, please, my hubs-bun, Lee. We leeve upstair. This our malyshka —our baby.” She pointed at June, who sat at the bottom of the steps in her walker, contentedly sucking on a pacifier. “He go out now all times since he lose his work.” She tried the smile again, and when her eyes crinkled, a tear spilled from the corner of the left one and tracked down her cheek.
So. Ole Bobby Stovall could get along without his best photoprint technician after all, it seemed.
“I haven’t seen him, Mrs. . ” Oswald almost jumped out, but I held it back in time. And that was good, because how would I know? They got no home delivery, it seemed. There were two mailboxes on the porch, but their name wasn’t on either of them. Neither was mine. I got no home delivery, either.
“Os’wal,” she said, and held out her hand. I shook it, more convinced than ever that this was a dream I was having. But her small dry palm was all too real. “Marina Os’wal, I am please to meet you, sir.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Oswald, I haven’t seen him today.” Not true; I’d seen him go out just after noon, not long after Ruth Paine’s station wagon swept Marina and June away to Irving.
“I’m worry for him,” she said. “He. . I don’ know. . sorry. No mean bother for you.” She smiled again — the sweetest, saddest smile — and wiped the tear slowly from her face.
“If I see him—”
Now she looked alarmed. “No, no, say nutting. He don’ like me talk to strangers. He come home supper, maybe for sure.” She walked down the steps and spoke Russian to the baby, who laughed and held out her chubby arms to her mother. “Goodbye, mister sir. Many thanks. You say nutting?”
“Okay,” I said. “Mum’s the word.” She didn’t get that, but nodded and looked relieved when I put my finger across my lips.
I closed the door, sweating heavily. Somewhere I could hear not just one butterfly flapping its wings, but a whole cloud of them.
Maybe it’s nothing.
I watched Marina push June’s stroller down the sidewalk toward the bus stop, where she probably meant to wait for her hubs-bun. . who was up to something. That much she knew. It had been all over her face.
I reached for the doorknob when she was out of sight, and that was when the phone rang. I almost didn’t answer it, but there were only a few people with my number, and one of them was a woman I cared about very much.
“Hello, Mr. Amberson,” a man said. He had a soft Southern accent. I’m not sure if I knew who he was right away. I can’t remember. I think I did. “Someone here has something to say to you.”
I lived two lives in late 1962 and early 1963, one in Dallas and one in Jodie. They came together at 3:39 on the afternoon of April 10. In my ear, Sadie began screaming.
She lived in a single-story prefab ranch on Bee Tree Lane, part of a four-or five-block development of houses just like it on the west side of Jodie. An aerial photograph of the neighborhood in a 2011 history book might have been captioned MID-CENTURY STARTER HOMES. She arrived there around three o’clock that afternoon, following an after-school meeting with her student library aides. I doubt if she noticed the white-over-red Plymouth Fury parked at the curb a little way down the block.
Across the street, four or five houses down, Mrs. Holloway was washing her car (a Renault Dauphine that the rest of the neighbors eyed with suspicion). Sadie waved to her when she got out of her VW Bug. Mrs. Holloway waved back. The only owners of foreign (and somehow alien ) cars on the block, they were casually collegial.
Sadie went up the walk to her front door and stood there for a moment, frowning. It was ajar. Had she left it that way? She went in and closed it behind her. It didn’t catch because the lock had been forced, but she didn’t notice. By then her whole attention was fixed on the wall over the sofa. There, written in her own lipstick, were two words in letters three feet high: DIRTY CUNT.
She should have run then, but her dismay and outrage were so great that she had no room for fear. She knew who had done it, but surely Johnny was gone. The man she had married had little taste for physical confrontation. Oh, there had been plenty of harsh words and that one slap, but nothing else.
Besides, her underwear was all over the floor.
It made a rough trail from the living room down the short hall to her bedroom. All of it — full slips, half-slips, bras, panties, the girdle she didn’t need but sometimes wore — had been slashed. At the end of the hall, the door to the bathroom stood open. The towel rack had been ripped down. Printed on the tile where it had been, also in her lipstick, was another message: FILTHY FUCKER.
The door of her bedroom was also open. She went to it and stood in it with no sense at all that Johnny Clayton was standing behind it with a knife in one hand and a Smith & Wesson Victory.38 in the other. The revolver he carried that day was the same make and model as the one Lee Oswald would use to take the life of Dallas policeman J. D. Tippit.
Her little vanity bag lay open on her bed, the contents, mostly makeup, scattered across the coverlet. The accordion doors of her closet were folded open. Some of her clothes still drooped sadly from their hangers; most were on the floor. All of them had been slashed.
“Johnny, you bastard!” She wanted to scream those words, but the shock was too great. She could only whisper.
She started for the closet but didn’t get far. An arm curled around her neck and a small circle of steel pressed hard against her temple. “Don’t move, don’t fight. If you do, I’ll kill you.”
She tried to pull away and he lashed her upside the head with the revolver’s short barrel. At the same time the arm around her neck tightened. She saw the knife in the fist at the end of the arm that was choking her and stopped struggling. It was Johnny — she recognized the voice — but it really wasn’t Johnny. He had changed.
I should have listened to him, she thought — meaning me. Why didn’t I listen?
He marched her into the living room, arm still around her throat, then spun her and shoved her down on the couch, where she flopped, legs splayed.
“Pull down your dress. I can see your garters, you whore.”
He was wearing bib overalls (that alone was enough to make her feel like she was dreaming) and had dyed his hair a weird orange-blond. She almost laughed.
He sat down on the hassock in front of her. The gun was aimed at her midsection. “We’re going to call your cockboy.”
“I don’t know what—”
“Amberson. The one you play hide the salami with in that hot-sheets place over Kileen. I know all about it. I’ve been watching you a long time.”
“Johnny, if you leave now I won’t call the police. I promise. Even though you spoiled my clothes.”
“Whore clothes,” he said dismissively.
“I don’t. . I don’t know his number.”
Her address book, the one she usually kept in her little office next to the typewriter, was lying open next to the phone. “I do. It’s on the first page. I looked under C for Cockboy first, but it wasn’t there. I’ll place the call, so you don’t get any ideas about saying something to the operator. Then you talk to him.”
“I won’t, Johnny, not if you mean to hurt him.”
He leaned forward. His weird orange-blond hair flopped into his eyes and he brushed it away with the hand holding the gun. Then he used the knife-hand to pluck the phone out of its cradle. The gun remained pointed steadily at her midsection. “Here’s the thing, Sadie,” he said, and now he sounded almost rational. “I’m going to kill one of you. The other can live. You decide which one it’s going to be.”
He meant every word. She could see it on his face. “What. . what if he isn’t home?”
He chuckled at her stupidity. “Then you die, Sadie.”
She must have thought: I can buy some time. It’s at least three hours from Dallas to Jodie, more if the traffic’s heavy. Time enough for Johnny to come to his senses. Maybe. Or for his attention to lapse just long enough for me to throw something at him and run out the door.
He dialed 0 without looking at the address book (his memory for numbers had always been just short of perfect), and asked for WEstbrook 7-5430. Listened. Said, “Thank you, Operator.”
Then, silence. Somewhere, over a hundred miles north, a telephone was ringing. She must have wondered how many rings Johnny would allow before hanging up and shooting her in the stomach.
Then his listening expression changed. He brightened, even smiled a little. His teeth were as white as ever, she observed, and why not? He had always brushed them at least half a dozen times a day. “Hello, Mr. Amberson. Someone here has something to say to you.”
He got off the hassock and handed Sadie the phone. As she put it to her ear, he slashed out with the knife, quick as a striking snake, and sliced open the side of her face.
“What did you do to her?” I shouted. “What did you do, you bastard?”
“Hush, Mr. Amberson.” He sounded amused. Sadie was no longer screaming, but I could hear her sobbing. “She’s all right. She’s bleeding pretty heavily, but that will stop.” He paused, then spoke in a tone of judicious consideration. “Of course, she’s not going to be pretty anymore. Now she looks like what she is, just a cheap four-dollar whore. My mother said she was, and my mother was right.”
“Let her go, Clayton,” I said. “Please.”
“I want to let her go. Now that I’ve marked her, I want to. But here’s what I already told her, Mr. Amberson. I am going to kill one of you. She cost me my job, you know; I had to quit and go into an electrical-treatment hospital or they were going to have me arrested.” He paused. “I pushed a girl down the stairs. She tried to touch me. All this dirty bitch’s fault, this one right here bleeding into her lap. I got her blood on my hands, too. I will need disinfectant.” And he laughed.
“I’ll give you three and a half hours. Until seven-thirty. Then I’ll put two bullets in her. One in her stomach and one in her filthy cunt.”
In the background, I heard Sadie scream: “Don’t you do it, Jacob!”
“SHUT UP!” Clayton yelled at her. “SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” Then, to me, chillingly conversational: “Who’s Jacob?”
“Me,” I said. “It’s my middle name.”
“Does she call you that in bed when she sucks your cock, cockboy?”
“Clayton,” I said. “Johnny. Think what you’re doing.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for over a year. They gave me shock treatments in the electric hospital, you know. They said they’d stop the dreams, but they didn’t. They made them worse.”
“How bad is she cut? Let me talk to her.”
“If you let me talk to her, maybe I’ll do what you’re asking. If you don’t, I most certainly won’t. Are you too fogged out from your shock treatments to understand that?”
It seemed he wasn’t. There was a shuffling sound in my ear, then Sadie was on. Her voice was thin and trembling. “It’s bad, but it’s not going to kill me.” Her voice dropped. “He just missed my eye—”
Then Clayton was back. “See? Your little tramp is fine. Now you just jump in your hotrod Chevrolet and get out here just as fast as the wheels will roll, how would that be? But listen to me carefully, Mr. George Jacob Amberson Cockboy: if you call the police, if I see a single blue or red light, I will kill this bitch and then myself. Do you believe that?”
“Good. I’m seeing an equation here where the values balance: the cockboy and the whoregirl. I’m in the middle. I’m the equals sign, Amberson, but you have to decide. Which value gets canceled out? It’s your call.”
“No!” she screamed. “Don’t! If you come out here he’ll kill both of u—”
The phone clicked in my ear.
I’ve told the truth so far, and I’m going to tell the truth here even though it casts me in the worst possible light: my first thought as my numb hand replaced the phone in its cradle was that he was wrong, the values didn’t balance. In one pan of the scales was a pretty high school librarian. In the other was a man who knew the future and had — theoretically, at least — the power to change it. For a second, part of me actually thought about sacrificing Sadie and going across town to watch the alley running between Oak Lawn Avenue and Turtle Creek Boulevard to find out if the man who changed American history was on his own.
Then I got into my Chevy and headed for Jodie. Once I got out on Highway 77, I pegged the speedometer at seventy and kept it there. While I was driving, I thumbed the latches on my briefcase, took out my gun, and dropped it into the inner pocket of my sport coat.
I realized I’d have to involve Deke in this. He was old and no longer steady on his feet, but there was simply no one else. He would want to be involved, I told myself. He loved Sadie. I saw it in his face every time he looked at her.
And he’s had his life, my cold mind said. She hasn’t. Anyway, he’ll have the same chance the lunatic gave you. He doesn’t have to come.
But he would. Sometimes the things presented to us as choices aren’t choices at all.
I never wished so much for my long-gone cell as I did on that drive from Dallas to Jodie. The best I could do was a gas station phone booth on SR 109, about half a mile beyond the football billboard. On the other end the phone rang three times. . four. . five. .
Just as I was about to hang up, Deke said, “Hello? Hello?” He sounded irritated and out of breath.
“Deke? It’s George.”
“Hey, boy!” Now tonight’s version of Bill Turcotte (from that popular and long-running play The Homicidal Husband ) sounded delighted instead of irritated. “I was out in my little garden beside the house. I almost let it ring, but then—”
“Be quiet and listen. Something very bad’s happened. Is still happening. Sadie’s been hurt already. Maybe a lot.”
There was a brief pause. When he spoke again, Deke sounded younger: like the tough man he had undoubtedly been forty years and two wives ago. Or maybe that was just hope. Tonight hope and a man in his late sixties was all I had. “You’re talking about her husband, aren’t you? This is my fault. I think I saw him, but that was weeks ago. And his hair was much longer than in the yearbook picture. Not the same color, either. It was almost orange. ” A momentary pause, and then a word I had never heard from him before. “Fuck!”
I told him what Clayton wanted, and what I proposed to do. The plan was simple enough. Did the past harmonize with itself? Fine, I would let it. I knew Deke might have a heart attack — Turcotte had — but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me. It was Sadie.
I waited for him to ask if it wouldn’t be better to turn this over to the police, but of course he knew better. Doug Reems, the Jodie constable, had poor eyesight, wore a brace on one leg, and was even older than Deke. Nor did Deke ask why I hadn’t called the state police from Dallas. If he had, I would have told him I believed Clayton was serious about killing Sadie if he saw a single flashing light. It was true, but not the real reason. I wanted to take care of the son of a bitch myself.
I was very angry.
“What time does he expect you, George?”
“No later than seven-thirty.”
“And it’s now. . quarter of, by my watch. Which gives us a smidge of time. The street behind Bee Tree is Apple-something. I disremember just what. That’s where you’ll be?”
“Right. The house behind hers.”
“I can meet you there in five minutes.”
“Sure, if you drive like a lunatic. Make it ten. And bring a prop, something he can see from the living room window if he looks out. I don’t know, maybe—”
“Will a casserole dish do?”
“Fine. See you there in ten.”
Before I could hang up, he said, “Do you have a gun?”
His reply was close to a dog’s growl. “Good.”
The street behind Doris Dunning’s house had been Wyemore Lane. The street behind Sadie’s was Apple Blossom Way. 202 Wyemore had been for sale. 140 Apple Blossom Way had no FOR SALE sign on the lawn, but it was dark and the lawn was shaggy, dotted with dandelions. I parked in front and looked at my watch. Six-fifty.
Two minutes later, Deke pulled his Ranch Wagon up behind my Chevy and got out. He was wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, and a string tie. In his hands he was holding a casserole dish with a flower on the side. It had a glass lid, and looked to contain three or four quarts of chop suey.
“Deke, I can’t thank you en—”
“I don’t deserve thanks, I deserve a swift kick in the pants. The day I saw him, he was coming out of the Western Auto just as I was going in. It had to’ve been Clayton. It was a windy day. A gust blew his hair back and I saw those hollows at his temples for just a second. But the hair. . long and not the same color. . he was dressed in cowboy clothes. . shit-fire.” He shook his head. “I’m getting old. If Sadie’s hurt, I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Are you feeling all right? No chest pains, or anything like that?”
He looked at me as if I were crazy. “Are we going to stand here discussing my health, or are we going to try to get Sadie out of the trouble she’s in?”
“We’re going to do more than try. Go around the block to her house. While you’re doing that, I’ll cut through this backyard, then push through the hedge and into Sadie’s.” I was thinking about the Dunning house on Kossuth Street, of course, but even as I said it, I remembered that there was a hedge at the foot of Sadie’s tiny backyard. I’d seen it many times. “You knock and say something cheery. Loud enough for me to hear. By then I’ll be in the kitchen.”
“What if the back door’s locked?”
“She keeps a key under the step.”
“Okay.” Deke thought for a moment, frowning, then raised his head. “I’ll say ‘Avon calling, special casserole delivery.’ And raise the dish so he can see me through the living room window if he looks. Will that do?”
“Yes. All I want you to do is distract him for a few seconds.”
“Don’t you shoot if there’s any chance you might hit Sadie. Tackle the bastard. You’ll do okay. The guy I saw was skinny as a rail.”
We looked at each other bleakly. Such a plan would work on Gunsmoke or Maverick, but this was real life. And in real life the good guys — and gals — sometimes get their asses kicked. Or killed.
The yard behind the house on Apple Blossom Way wasn’t quite the same as the one behind the Dunning place, but there were similarities. For one, there was a doghouse, although no sign reading YOUR POOCH BELONGS HERE. Instead, painted in a child’s unsteady hand over the round door-shaped entrance, were the words BUTCHS HOWSE. And no trick-or-treating kiddies. Wrong season.
The hedge, however, looked exactly the same.
I pushed through it, barely noticing the scratches the stiff branches scrawled on my arms. I crossed Sadie’s backyard in a running crouch, and tried the door. Locked. I felt beneath the step, sure that the key would be gone because the past harmonized but the past was obdurate.
It was there. I fished it out, put it in the lock, and applied slow increasing pressure. There was a faint thump from inside the door when the latch sprang back. I stiffened, waiting for a yell of alarm. None came. There were lights on in the living room, but I heard no voices. Maybe Sadie was dead already and Clayton was gone.
God, please no.
Once I eased the door open, however, I heard him. He was talking in a loud and monotonous drone, sounding like Billy James Hargis on tranquilizers. He was telling her what a whore she was, and how she had ruined his life. Or maybe it was the girl who had tried to touch him he was talking about. To Johnny Clayton they were all the same: sex-hungry disease carriers. You had to lay down the law. And, of course, the broom.
I slipped off my shoes and put them on the linoleum. The light was on over the sink. I checked my shadow to make sure it wasn’t going to precede me into the doorway. I took my gun out of my sport coat pocket and started across the kitchen, meaning to stand beside the doorway to the living room until I heard Avon calling! Then I would go in a rush.
Only that isn’t what happened. When Deke called out, there was nothing cheery about it. That was a cry of shocked fury. And it wasn’t outside the front door; it was right in the house.
“Oh, my God! Sadie!”
After that, things happened very, very fast.
Clayton had forced the front door lock so it wouldn’t latch. Sadie didn’t notice, but Deke did. Instead of knocking, he pushed it open and stepped inside with the casserole dish in his hands. Clayton was still sitting on the hassock, and the gun was still pointed at Sadie, but he had put the knife down on the floor beside him. Deke said later he didn’t even know Clayton had a knife. I doubt if he really even noticed the gun. His attention was fixed on Sadie. The top of her blue dress was now a muddy maroon. Her arm and the side of the sofa where it dangled were both covered with blood. But worst of all was her face, which was turned toward him. Her left cheek hung in two flaps, like a torn curtain.
“Oh, my God! Sadie!” The cry was spontaneous, nothing but pure shock.
Clayton turned, upper lip lifted in a snarl. He raised the gun. I saw this as I burst through the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. And I saw Sadie piston out one foot, kicking the hassock. Clayton fired, but the bullet went into the ceiling. As he tried to get up, Deke threw the casserole dish. The cover lifted off. Noodles, hamburger, green peppers, and tomato sauce sprayed in a fan. The dish, still more than half-full, hit Clayton’s right arm. Chop suey poured out. The gun went flying.
I saw the blood. I saw Sadie’s ruined face. I saw Clayton crouched on the blood-spotted rug and raised my own gun.
“No!” Sadie screamed. “No, don’t, please don’t!”
It cleared my mind like a slap. If I killed him, I would become the subject of police scrutiny no matter how justified the killing might be. My George Amberson identity would fall apart, and any chance I had of stopping the assassination in November would be gone. And really, how justified would it be? The man was disarmed.
Or so I thought, because I didn’t see the knife, either. It was hidden by the overturned hassock. Even if it had been out in the open, I might have missed it.
I put the gun back in my pocket and hauled him to his feet.
“You can’t hit me!” Spit flew from his lips. His eyes fluttered like those of a man having a seizure. His urine let go; I heard it pattering to the carpet. “I’m a mental patient, I’m not responsible, I can’t be held responsible, I have a certificate, it’s in the glove compartment of my car, I’ll show it to y—”
The whine of his voice, the abject terror in his face now that he was disarmed, the way his dyed orange-blond hair hung around his face in clumps, even the smell of chop suey. . all of these things enraged me. But mostly it was Sadie, cowering on the couch and drenched in blood. Her hair had come loose, and on the left side it hung in a clot beside her grievously wounded face. She would wear her scar in the same place Bobbi Jill wore the ghost of hers, of course she would, the past harmonizes, but Sadie’s wound looked oh so much worse.
I slapped him across the right side of his face hard enough to knock spittle flying from the left side of his mouth. “You crazy fuck, that’s for the broom!”
I went back the other way, this time knocking the spit from the right side of his mouth and relishing his howl in the bitter, unhappy way that is reserved only for the worst things, the ones where the evil is too great to be taken back. Or ever forgiven. “That’s for Sadie!”
I balled my fist. In some other world, Deke was yelling into the phone. And was he rubbing his chest, the way Turcotte had rubbed his? No. At least not yet. In that same other world Sadie was moaning. “And this is for me!”
I drove my fist forward, and — I said I would tell the truth, every bit of it — when his nose splintered, his scream of pain was music to my ears. I let him go and he collapsed to the floor.
Then I turned to Sadie.
She tried to get off the couch, then fell back. She tried to hold her arms out to me, but she couldn’t do that, either. They dropped into the sodden mess of her dress. Her eyes started to roll up and I was sure she was going to faint, but she held on. “You came,” she whispered. “Oh, Jake, you came for me. You both did.”
“Bee Tree Lane!” Deke shouted into the phone. “No, I don’t know the number, I can’t remember it, but you’ll see an old man with chop suey on his shoes standing outside and waving his arms! Hurry! She’s lost a lot of blood!”
“Sit still,” I said. “Don’t try to—”
Her eyes widened. She was looking over my shoulder. “Look out! Jake, look out !”
I turned, fumbling in my pocket for the gun. Deke also turned, holding the telephone receiver in both of his arthritis-knotted hands like a club. But although Clayton had picked up the knife he’d used to disfigure Sadie, his days of attacking anyone were over. Anyone but himself, that is.
It was another scene I’d played before, this one on Greenville Avenue, not long after I’d come to Texas. There was no Muddy Waters blasting from the Desert Rose, but here was another badly hurt woman and another man bleeding from another broken nose, his shirt untucked and flapping almost to his knees. He was holding a knife instead of a gun, but otherwise it was just the same.
“No, Clayton!” I shouted. “Put it down!”
His eyes, visible through clumps of orange hair, were bulging as he stared at the dazed, half-fainting woman on the couch. “Is this what you want, Sadie?” he shouted. “If this is what you want, I’ll give you what you want!”
Grinning desperately, he raised the knife to his throat. . and cut.